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Emma Davies is a journalist from the south-west of England. She likes books, red wine and her duvet, and is at her happiest when managing to combine this trio of good things.

Read this article in Vhcle Issue 18

Read other articles by Emma Davies

Lionel Shriver’s Unlikely Heroines


Emma Davies


Vhcle Books, Issue 18

We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Eva Khatchadourian is not an entirely likeable woman. Having been ambivalent in the extreme about the idea of motherhood from the very beginning, she is cold to her son, never willing to give him any benefit of the doubt. Nor is Double Fault’s Willy Novinsky an easy woman to warm to – unable to view her husband as anything other than smug competition, even as he seeks to support her. So Much for That’s Glynis Knacker, too, is prickly and stubborn. Angry and caustic as she battles mesothe-lioma, she is nothing like the brave-faced, inspirational cancer sufferer of stereotypes. In fact, very few of Lionel Shriver’s female characters are straightforwardly loveable, instead often prickly, conflicted and selfish. And this is no bad thing – in fact, it’s a very important one.

Parenthood, marital discord and terminal illness are resolutely not what defines these women, however. Eva runs a travel-book company, having started her own business from scratch and turned it into an empire. Willy is a professional tennis player, striving to break on to the WTA touring circuit. Glynis is a talented silversmith. These are the means by which they choose to define themselves. They are all strong women, refusing to remain within the confines of the traditional molds of femininity.

Women, in reality, are not always passive, sweet and docile. We are ambitious, complex and argumentative. Not all of us want to bear and raise children. We may not relish having to share the spotlight with another who mirrors, and betters, our own achievements. Some of us will rage against the dying of the light with ferocious spirit. All of these types of women – and more – deserve as much of a place and a voice within fiction as they do in the world itself. Shriver’s depictions of these less-commonly examined aspects of femininity are unflinching, and all the more rewarding for it.

Consider, for a moment, Gillian Flynn’s runaway success Gone Girl. Diary Amy – trying to force herself to be a ‘Cool Girl’ she doesn’t truly believe exists, aware of her own flaws and limitations, trying to make the best stab at things – could almost have been lifted from one of Shriver’s novels. But the truth revealed by the twist? She wasn’t real; instead, the actual Amy was a bunny-boiling psychopath who veered far into caricature territory. I am sure I am not the only one who felt cheated by how the rug was pulled out from under me – at how a character like Diary Amy was not allowed by the novel to truly exist.

What’s more, Shriver’s characters always feel solid, three-dimensional, human. They make for compelling leads and supporting characters, their thought processes and motivations captured in exquisite detail that doesn’t shy away from ugly truths – and this should be celebrated. I would rather read a character who feels like a real person I might not like that much, than a cardboard cut-out who wants to be my friend. In presenting such characters, Shriver’s writing defies the cultural idea that women exist for external approval. Eva, Willy, Glynis and their ilk may not always be ‘nice girls’, but you’ll end up identifying with – and rooting for – them anyway.